This is How I Work

Dr. Eva Lantsoght has created a blog focused on “the process of doing a PhD,” among other topics (including, get this, reinforced concrete), and about a year ago, she invited me to write a piece for her “How I Work” series.

Writing this short piece allowed me to think about what my PhD means to me. As someone who chose what is now referred to as an “alt-ac” path, I do ponder my life choices at times, and wonder if earning this degree was worth it.

I’m happy to say that it was, but not for any of the reasons I would have guessed.

Was it worth it?

I get asked every now and then if earning the doctorate was worth it. If I could do it all over again, would I?

That’s a tough question to answer.

On the one hand, the actual act of earning the PhD is not something I would do again for any amount of money. You could promise me my own private island in the Bahamas with a never-ending supply of Nutella in exchange for the degree, and still I would say no.

If you’re curious as to why, it’s because the entire process of earning a doctorate* can be summed up with this. This man is ostensibly describing what it’s like to serve as a committee member for a student’s dissertation. (For those not in academia: doctorates in the humanities require each student to have a Chairperson, known as the first reader, and two additional professors serving as readers two and three. This team is, in theory, supposed to guide you and support you as you write your dissertation, and ultimately help you produce worthy scholarship.)

Read the first two points of his position very carefully.

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Got it? Do you see what he did there?

He is essentially saying, “First, if/when your committee members make suggestions, take them.”

Then, he says, “Second, don’t just take their suggestions blindly! After all, this is your dissertation.”

Welcome to the hell that was my dissertation process. We’re talking about four years of “Think for yourself! But, do as you’re told. But, think for yourself! But do as you’re told.”

I suppose in theory the process should work just fine. Your committee gives you guidance, you consider it, you implement the changes that make sense to you and advance your work, and you thoughtfully decline to make other changes that don’t, perhaps in conversation with your committee members where they are so proud of your demonstrated ability to . . . HAHAHAHAHA.

Oh, it so does not work that way. I spent years with my committee members doing number 1: they marked up my chapters and I was expected to make their changes, period, full stop, end of sentence.

Then, I would meet with my advisor to discuss any changes I had opted not to make (which weren’t many, if I’m honest. For the most part, my committee’s feedback was sound; but there were times when I respectfully disagreed and had this crazy idea that that was acceptable), and she would scold me for disrespecting the time and expertise that my committee had extended . . . and then turn right around and scold me for not thinking for myself!

Imagine doing this for four straight years. No amount of Nutella could make this productive.

I’m not alone

For a long time, I thought that the problem was within my institution, but the more I engaged with others, the more I saw that my experience was not unique.

Take a few minutes to scroll through Twitter, and you’ll see countless posts about earning a PhD was an overwhelmingly negative endeavor.

Recently, I read this. I immediately understood exactly what she meant. So did a lot of other people, judging by the number of responses she got:

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Also, this request for help and support. Again, the stress that this person is feeling is not unique to them.

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The #withaphd community online overwhelmingly echoes such sentiments, ranging from “what did I get myself into” to “this is taking the kind of toll on my mental health that is making me seriously considering closing my laptop and walking away forever.”

What’s the upside?

So, after the years of stress and frustration that culminates in a degree that not only does not guarantee a job of any kind, but potentially makes me overqualified for many jobs, do I regret it?

Honestly, no. Of course, I think the process needs to change, in a large-scale way. I hate how much I inwardly cringe when I hear someone excitedly saying that they got into grad school or are considering a PhD. I want to tell them all to run, fast, in the other direction.

I want to tell them that, if there is anything they can conceive of themselves doing with the next 8-10 years of their lives, then they should do that thing instead, whatever it is.

But I do regret the path I chose?

I certainly don’t regret the confidence I have now with my abilities. And I don’t mean that I think I’m any smarter or more able to write or teach writing than I was before I went to graduate school. I’m talking about that inner knowledge that yes, I can kick some serious butt in the academic and business worlds. It’s the kind of knowledge of self-worth that shines through unsaid.

Once I was talking with a colleague who said that his daughter competes in dead-lift competitions, and can lift some extraordinary amount of weight. On the outside, you might not look at this petite woman and think she could do something so badass.

But she knows. And that makes all the difference with how she carries herself throughout each day.

That inner knowledge of her badassness shines through in everything that she does.

That’s how I feel about earning this degree

Earning my PhD was not a difficult physical endeavor. There are people who struggle through much more difficult experiences in a whole variety of ways. But this isn’t a competition.

The result is that I hold dear the simple knowledge that I know, despite anything my committee or anyone else may think, that I am worthy, that I am smart, that my propensity for kindness and compassion are strengths, not weaknesses, and that I know that I can set a major goal for myself and see it through, no matter what.

That is worth everything.

Feel free to put my innter-badassness to work for you. Reach out for a quote on content writing for your next blog or project. 

 

*I restrict my critique to the study of humanities; I understand that degrees in the sciences might be a bit different, and by different, I mean better. I sure hope so.

The Drama of the DMV, aka Why You Need Precise Words

I recently moved to a new state. I need to update my vehicle registration and get a new driver’s license. I did this a few years ago and don’t remember it being all that difficult, and so wasn’t prepared for it to be that hard this time around, either.

I went online to my new state’s DMV website to figure out if I needed to get my license first and then my vehicle registration, or the other way around.

Wow, does the person responsible for my state’s DMV website like to write. There are words upon words upon words all over this site.

I spent – no joke – at least three solid visits to this site, reading carefully, and copying the sections that pertained to me into a word doc, so I could create a series of steps that I needed to get all of this done.

My goal was to compile a list of documents that I needed to gather, plus the order of operations as to where I needed to go and when.

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This is a fraction of the dense text I had to wade through, on only one of the several pages I needed to consult. 

This should not have been that hard, and at first glance, aside from needing to wade through all of those words, it wasn’t.

I put together my list of required documents. I added a few extra that I have at hand, so I show up loaded for bear.

I saw that I needed a vehicle inspection prior to getting my license. So, the order of operations was clear: inspection first, appear at DMV second. Got it.

Today, I went to a nearby Jiffy Lube and asked if they do vehicle inspections. “No, only the DMV does inspections for registration,” the man there said.

“Only the DMV?” I asked.

Yep. It’s essentially one-stop shopping, which isn’t a bad thing, I suppose, except, remember that part where I went to the website several times and read through it with a fine-toothed comb?

Somewhere in all of those words, it either didn’t say that you had to get your registration at the DMV itself, or it says it somewhere on that site but is so buried, good luck to anyone trying to figure it out.

How about, instead of all of those words upon words upon words, the DMV offers a simple checklist for people just moving here from out of state. Provide an order of operations, along with the list of necessary documents. It shouldn’t require reading through multiple paragraphs of dense text plus going back and forth between several pages to find the necessary information to accomplish a simple task.

This experience made think about what I do with my writing business, and why I have chosen to call my business “Precise Words.”

I have been given a lot of advice from people in the writing community about how I need to have a niche for my writing to take off. Choose a specialty, they say, perhaps personal finance, or wine, or pet care, or…?

I’ve been lucky to have worked in a variety of different fields, including personal finance, wellness, real estate, travel, retail product descriptions, direct mail fundraising for nonprofits, and blogging for small businesses as varied as air purifier companies to landscape businesses to commercial packaging plants. I’m working on adding wine writing and more real estate and travel writing to my portfolio.

“Precise words” IS my niche. Plenty of people think that in order to write effectively, you just write down all of the things in your head and shove it at people.

Please do not do this.

The result of that approach is the DMV website with all those words that don’t really say anything you need.

My skillset isn’t just about knowing which words to use, it’s about knowing when to use fewer words. This is important. This is also a skill that comes with training, education, and lots and lots of practice.

There’s a saying that when you hire someone to provide creative services, you aren’t hiring them for the minutes or hours it takes them to provide the work; you’re hiring them for the decades of practice and experience they have put in to honing their craft.

So, if you have a website with all those words, and you aren’t sure it’s saying the things you really need it to say, don’t be like the DMV. Reach out to me and let me help. I can use my writing precision to help you say exactly what you need to say in the clearest, most effective way possible.

 

 

 

The Power of Precise Words

PenI’ve had the privilege to do some copywriting for Nathan Yates at ForwardView Consulting. Not too long ago, he asked if I would write a guest post for his blog, about the power of precise words.

He said he thought that would be a great topic to write about “because many clients don’t initially want to pay for website/brochure copy or blog posts . . . until they struggle writing everything themselves.”

I hear that, Nathan. In my experience, clients typically fall into two camps:

  • They are perfectly capable of writing their own content, and they know it, so they don’t want to pay someone else to do it. Except the business takes their attention in so many other directions that writing content tends to fall low on the list of priorities.
  • They think they can write the content themselves, but really shouldn’t. They have have the ideas, but not the writing skills or experience, and their talents are best used in other aspects of the business.

Nathan and I both see the same end result. As he astutely put it: “We ultimately write the copy once the client gives up after a few weeks, but that creates a long delay.”

So, I put together this piece about how hiring a copywriter can actually save you time, money, headaches, stress, and generally make you, and your business, look terrific.

I hope you check it out, and feel free to reach out to Nathan or to me to discuss what we have to offer!

September 11, 2001

September 11, 2001 always gets me thinking.

I remember sitting at my desk in my little office at a company I have long since left, learning about this crazy thing happening in New York. I tried to look it up online but couldn’t, because the Internet was down. So many people were trying to go online at once that the entire Internet had crashed.

I lived near DC, and my family is from New York, and so the news of the shocking attacks on the twin towers always felt way too close to home.

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Dad with Red Auerbach, Faneuil Hall, Boston

I had no idea just how close to home this day would end up becoming.

Getting the news

I got through my day mildly confused and curious about the world events that I had heard about second hand. I walked through the door of my apartment, and turned on the news. That’s when the chaos flooded my eyes and my ears. To this day, when I think of 9/11, I hear George W. Bush’s voice. I don’t remember what he said, but I will probably forever associate his voice with that day. I simply cannot separate the two.

My phone rang. I numbly answered it, and it was my mother. She was crying. I thought that was strange. She is typically not that affected by world events.

I don’t recall if she even knew that the twin towers had fallen. Her day had been spent sitting in a doctor’s office in Baltimore as a surgeon told my parents that my father’s tumor was the size of a peach, not the size of a pea, as they had been previously told.

They had walked into this office with a sense of hope, their last hope, really. At this point, they knew that there was a tumor, they knew it was on my father’s pancreas, and they knew that pancreatic tumors, even when operable, are often fatal.

But, if the tumor was small, it was potentially operable. They were there to discuss a surgical procedure known as a Whipple, which might just buy my dad some more time.

They walked out of that office leaving their hope behind. The tumor was too big, it had grown around a major blood vessel, and any surgery risked a major bleed-out, and certain death.

They talked about maybe doing radiation to shrink the tumor and buy a little time, but what kind of time would that be? My dad had already suffered quite terribly. He was ready to accept what was before him.

Accepting the imminent death of a loved one is a difficult thing. It means acceptance of a complete change of life, in ways big and small. Everything becomes a “last.” Dad’s last Thanksgiving. Dad’s last Christmas. Dad’s last birthday. He got sicker faster. The end was not good for him, though he was surrounded with love. I suppose that’s something.

Affinity for pens

Before he died, my dad gave me his pen. It was a retractable fountain pen that I loved and secretly coveted. I later thanked him (again) for the pen, and asked if he knew how much I liked it. He said:

liked the pen

I asked how he knew. He said:

observation

Over time, part of the casing broke, but the manufacturer no longer makes that specific pen and so don’t have replacement parts. They offered to replace it with a newer model, if I send in the broken pen.

No way. I’m keeping that pen forever and always, thank you very much.

Fast forward to more recently. I discovered a company called The Goulet Pen Company. This is a store my dad would love. They have everything, every pen at every price point, plus all sorts of fancy inks. He would love their customer service, too. I reached out with some questions, and a lovely woman named Susan replied, with all kinds of great information.

I asked more questions. She replied with, get this, a video that she whipped up on the spot just for me to demo different types of pens.

That’s right: She made me a video.

She noticed that my name is Italian, and we exchanged a few small pleasantries in Italian. She signed off with “Just let me know when I can help, noi ragazze italiane dobbiamo stare insieme!!” which I’m pretty excited I understood.

I feel like signs are everywhere that dad has stuck around. You just have to know where to look.

Looking forward

I struggle every year when the inevitable “never forget” messages flood social media and the news and I can’t turn it off or run or escape or hide. But then, I hear from a complete stranger like Susan in ways that remind me of my Dad, or I hear from friends who supported me through some pretty big life changes recently, and I know that, despite the rough days, there are good days ahead.

“Enjoy every day,” my dad said to me on September 11, 2001, after he got the worst news of his life.

I do my best, Dad.

 

Saving Money

Lately, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to my discretionary spending. I know that I spend more than I should on things I don’t really want or need, so I’m working on being more mindful of my choices. This has been an interesting experiment. I have found that it’s actually quite easy to save money as long as you practice a certain sense of money mindfulness.

Example:

One thing I won’t skimp on in life is a decent haircut. I have thick, curly hair that most stylists struggle with cutting. I will pay pretty much anything to have my hair cut properly by someone who embraces the curl.

Recently, I found one of these stylists. The haircut was actually quite affordable ($40 or so), and she introduced me to some products that might help bring out the best in my curls. She didn’t push to make a sale, and I appreciated that.

One of the products she recommended is a microfiber towel to gently dry my curls by cloth2hand right out of the shower. She sells these for $20 each. Not bad, I thought. I didn’t buy one that day, but filed that away in the back of my mind to consider buying one on my next visit.

I also made a mental note to keep an eye out for microfiber towels elsewhere so I could price compare.

One night at Aldi, I found a twelve-pack of microfiber towels for $4.99.cloth

That’s right – a twelve-pack. For dirt cheap.

So by not simply grabbing the shiny object when it was literally dangled in my face, I got a much better value elsewhere without sacrificing the high-quality haircut that is important to me.

Another example:

I had a $10 coupon to CVS that was about to expire. I was determined to use every one of these ten dollars. I could have just gone and bought ten dollars worth of stuff and been done with it. Instead, before going to the store, I checked online to see if there were any other coupons I could use to maximize the savings.

It’s CVS, people. Of course there were other coupons I could use.

Neutrogena had a coupon for $3 off, as did L’Oreal. I wanted to buy a new mascara, so that was perfect. I spent some time looking at both displays before making my choice.

I ended up walking out with a mascara, a new eye shadow, and a coffee drink for about a dollar and change.cvs

All it took was a few extra minutes to look up some coupons, and then some patience in the store while I made thoughtful decisions rather than just grabbing stuff off the shelf like I used to do.

Another example:

There were two books I wanted to read recently. The old me would have placed an order online and had the books delivered to my door. New me called the local library. They had both books on the shelf. All I had to do was make one phone call and drive to the library two miles away, and I got both books in my hand that day, for free.

I’m finding that patience and thoughtful decision-making are the keys to saving money when it comes to discretionary spending. I’m looking forward to what other deals I can find.

What tricks have you found to save money or maximize your spending?

What Does Fifteen Minutes Mean to You?

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View from the elevator of the hotel once I finally checked in.

I can do a lot of things in fifteen minutes. I can hardboil some eggs. I can run a mile and a half. I can take a cat nap. I can read a chapter in a book.

What I find frustrating is spending that fifteen minutes on hold, in particular when the hold is with a major hotel chain known for their customer experience.

I won’t name the hotel chain today. I’m not looking to shame a specific business, in particular because the specific business isn’t the real problem.

The real problem is what passes for customer service these days.

Who actually thinks that it’s good for business or makes customers happy to need fifteen minutes before you can speak with a live human about your reservation?

All I needed to do was call the hotel and confirm that I did make a request for a refrigerator in my room.

That’s it. That’s all I wanted to do.

I had the phone number for the hotel. I had my confirmation number. I gave them a call.

The woman who answered asked for my confirmation number, and then cut me off before I had finished reading it out to her.

She insisted that was not my confirmation number. Oh, but it is, I assured her. I called this same phone number and gave this same conf…

“Ma’am, our confirmation numbers start with a 7 or 2. Yours started with a 3. That’s not a number in our system.”

Again, I started to explain that I had just called the other ni…

“What’s the last name, ma’am, perhaps I can find the reservation that way.”

I spelled my name.

It turns out that she couldn’t find the reservation because it’s more than 8 days prior to check in.

Excuse me? This is a major hotel chain. The company is worldwide. Yet you can’t find my reservation in the system a mere 25 days out?

I started to again try to explain that I had actually called this same phone number, and provided this same confirmation number just last week and spoken with a person who found my reservation right away, but Ms. Customer Service had no time for that.

“Ma’am, the best I can do is transfer you to another office where they might be able to find you by that confirmation number, which is the number provided because you booked as part of a group rate.”

“But just the other da….”

And, I’m on hold. Awesome.

I wondered how, exactly, this major hotel chain remains so major despite this bizarre idea they have for what constitutes customer service. I wasn’t being argumentative. I wasn’t being difficult. In fact, I was as nice as can be. I simply wanted to talk to a human and be able to finish my sentences.

Turns out, that was a lot to ask.

I was transferred to one of those automated systems we all know and do not love. With the robot woman’s voice saying, “Hi there. I just need to ask you a few questions to route you to the appropriate person.”

I seriously could not even deal with this. Not after I called the same number I called a few nights ago and got a person who could help me. What was different tonight? Why was I now speaking with a robot? Argh. No.

“Human being,” I said.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” robot-woman said. “If you could just answer a few questions…”

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: “If you can answer a few questions, I can route you faster to …”

Me: Human being.

Robot-woman: “I think you are saying you would like to speak to a customer service reprsentativ…

Me: Dear god, yes.

Robot-woman: If you could just answer a few questions first, I can better route you to…

Me: ARGH HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you could just…

Me: HUMAN BEING.

Robot-woman: If you…

Me: HUMAN BEING HUMAN BEING HUMAN BEING!

Robot-woman: Please hold while I connect you.

I was then on hold for fifteen solid minutes. I folded some laundry. I poured some wine. I contemplated having pie for dinner.

Finally, a nice lady named Nancy answered the call. Nancy was able to look up my confirmation number. Nancy confirmed that the reservation is not fully in the system until 8-10 days prior to check in (what? seriously?), but she would be happy to make a note of my request on the reservation.

Nancy was lovely. I appreciate Nancy. It is not Nancy’s fault that it took me fifteen minutes, one less than helpful customer service representative and a robot to get to her. She couldn’t really explain – or understand – why the original person wouldn’t or couldn’t help me, nor provide a different phone number or way to contact the hotel in the future. But, this is not Nancy’s fault.

I’m sure it’s cost-effective in the short term for big hotel chains to use the robot lady, but I’m not sure what their excuse is for the difficulty with the conversation with the first person with whom I spoke.

I’m also willing to bet that with so many business travelers, people just deal with this nonsense, because their job is paying for it. Or maybe they’re used to it. I find it hard to believe that people might not care. A simple phone call to request a refrigerator in my hotel room for a reservation occurring in less than a month should not have taken fifteen minutes, two humans, and a robot. This call should have taken three minutes, tops, and been far more pleasant.

This experience, though, is a crystal clear picture as to why, when I travel for myself and not for business, I avoid big name hotels. I much prefer AirBnB rentals, where the accommodations are better, and where there is more of a personal touch.